Two Orinda Physicians Make a Difference for Indigenous Mayan Indians

Dr. Donna Di Cenzo and another volunteer hold two young patients ready to be discharged from Hospital de la Familia’s nutrition center.

    Dr. Donna Di Cenzo, an obstetrician/gynecologist, has been doing international humanitarian work for over 10 years. Six years ago, she discovered Hospital de la Familia (HDLF) in Guatemala where fellow Orinda resident Dr. Andy Sorenson, an ophthalmologist, has been volunteering for many years.
    “I’m passionate about volunteering at the Hospital de la Familia because I am inspired by how doing small things for people who literally have nothing can make such a big difference in their lives,” says DiCenzo.  “It is rewarding to use skills from my medical training for such good causes.  In America, we have so much and take so much for granted whereas the people we serve in Nueva Progreso, an area with a largely indigenous Mayan Indian population, live such impoverished lives.” 
    Sorenson adds, “This Western region of Guatemala is the poorest region in Latin America with the highest rates of malnutrition.”
    The two doctors have seen many unbelievable cases such as children as old as 15 who were unable to get cleft palate surgery until the hospital recently provided it.  “That’s a long time of not being able to eat properly and most likely being ostracized from their community,” says DiCenzo.  “They are reticent to go out of their house or attend school because of the disfigurement. Having the surgery is life changing.”
    Sorenson tells about just one day in surgery at this hospital where 20 people recovered their sight when their cataracts were removed.
    Established 40 years ago as a small, dispensing pharmacy, the HDLF is now a year-round medical facility offering general medical, surgery, pediatric, obstetrical and dental services. The hospital treated over 13,000 patients last year with its staff of 69 full-time employees, including four doctors, 12 nurses, three to four nurse/nun instructors and a contingent of Guatemalan medical and dental students.  In addition, surgery is provided by volunteer U.S. teams four to six times a year.
    “We have seen such an increase in the quality of life and economic improvement as the hospital and its programs have increased.  Most people still live in shacks with dirt floors,” DiCenzo explains. “They cook over open flames in their one room homes which leads to pulmonary disease such as emphysema and cancer later in life.” A recent trip in August included one of the physicians showing the populace how to build stoves that vent outside the home to help prevent some of these problems.  
    Sanitation is also a big problem. According to DiCenzo people still burn their garbage or dump it on the side of the road or in big open-air dumps. Many of the population also dig a hole outside their houses for use as a toilet.  When it fills, they cover it and pick another place to dig a hole. “There is much to do in the area of education for a more healthy lifestyle,” adds DiCenzo.
    Along with medical services, other programs offered by the hospital include a Nutrition Center, with nutrition therapy for infants and toddlers. Dr. DiCenzo tells about a case where a baby was admitted in May but was determined too frail to be operated on.  The Guatemalan doctor admitted the baby to the Nutrition Center. In July, after gaining weight, the infant received cleft palate surgery. “Now, she is better able to eat and grow and have a much better life,” DiCenzo says. 
    Sorenson adds the most exciting part of the hospital’s growth for him has been the hiring of two full-time Guatemalan ophthalmologists.  When he and Dr. Robert Lee first traveled to Guatemala in 1973, regional health centers might perform 100 cataract surgeries per year.  In 2017, HDLF’s Eye Clinic performed over 1500 surgeries to restore vision and cared for the vision of another 7,000 patients.
    The hospital also provides: a rehabilitation for children with parasitic diseases and malnutrition; teaches parents ways to improve food preparation and nutrition; a Dental Clinic; Nurse Training Classes; and Sewing Classes for women and girls. In addition, the hospital established an elementary school (grades 1-8) with an enrollment of about 150 children.  The school offers free education, books and uniforms as well as a nutritious mid-day meal.
    DiCenzo notes that her team is always looking for volunteers to go to Hospital de La Familia. The next trip is planned for Nov. 2 through 9.  The Hospital de La Familia website ( lists the needs and what is required to volunteer. Each volunteer pays a “donation fee” which covers round trip airfare, ground transportation, dormitory style lodging at the hospital and three meals a day.  Since scrubs are worn most of the day and are provided, volunteers are asked to bring only a carry-on suitcase so that their luggage allowance can be used for a duffle bag full of supplies.  Donation fees vary according to medical specialty.
    Sorenson says “Since its inception, HDLF has been the recipient of thousands of volunteers over the decades: nurses, surgeons, technicians and translators who donate their skills and time to create life-changing improvements in the lives of indigent Guatemalans.” 

A nurse works with a young patient at the Hospital de la Familia in Guatemala.

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